I grew up going to a Reform synagogue a few times a year. My family has always been more culturally than religiously Jewish, but Judaism runs deep in my blood regardless. I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah and grew up in a community where many Jewish people lived.
When I was 20, I moved from Newton to Reno, Nevada, and for the first time in my life began to experience my Judaism as something that made me different. I was one of the “others.” Most of what I experienced was light-hearted joking. It wasn’t hateful; primarily I was identified as a Jew. I always felt it was unnecessary, like I could just be the guy in blue or the guy with glasses. Instead, I was “the Jewish guy.” Or I’d be hit with stupid jokes about being cheap. It mostly annoyed me, but sadly, I learned to live with it.
I met people who had never met anyone Jewish. I was a novelty for them. I remember a woman asking me, “But you still believe in Jesus, right?” The entire concept of me was out of her scope of understanding.
I remember one summer day, this guy was talking to me. He seemed perfectly normal; we had a good conversation and he came across as a nice guy. Then at some point, he changed his shirt and revealed a large swastika tattooed on his chest. My heart raced; I went into panic/survival mode. I wanted to get out of there ASAP. I explained how I was Jewish and this wasn’t OK. Someone calmed me down and he explained to me that he doesn’t agree with that tattoo and what it represents anymore, and had gotten it when he was a dumb, angry teen. I could tell he was being sincere. I saw his humanity behind the ink. I ended up dropping him off on my way home.
I had gone to one of the two synagogues in town a couple of times. I remember being invited to a Shabbat dinner after services one night. It was very cathartic to be around my people when I had felt so alone and separate from the masses. I had found a piece of home, at least temporarily.
One day the synagogue was firebombed. Some people had thrown Molotov cocktails through the windows and caused significant damage. I was devastated. I remember seeing the paper and shaking, speechless. I could have been inside. Then the friend I was with criticized me for making such a big deal about it. It was at this moment that I made a decision that I would hold onto for the next decade: “It is not safe to be Jewish.”
I distanced myself from my faith. I found myself actively trying to avoid my Judaism and shut down to anything remotely connected to it. I would go to Passover seders and High Holiday services but was only there physically. Mentally and emotionally, I had to be numb. I had to be checked out. I couldn’t take the risk. It wasn’t safe. I found a disdain toward Jews built up in me. I didn’t hate the Jewish people, I just wished Judaism didn’t have to be so Jew-y. Like, why does everything have to be Hebrew and why are we always focusing on strife? I found myself annoyed by my uncle and grandmother’s adherence to traditions and thought it ridiculous to keep kosher. I became very critical of all things Jewish. My guard was way up and I needed to feel protected.
Then I met Dena. As we got to know each other, she gradually brought me into her world—a world where Judaism is not dangerous but a rich, beautiful tapestry of community, tradition and strength that has endured with grace for millennia. I met her family, some of whom were studying to be or working as rabbis. I met her uncle, who makes tallit, and I met young Jewish adults who were a lot like me in many ways.
Initially, I found all of this very triggering and I was not comfortable at all. But gradually, my walls came down as I reconnected with my faith through love—love of my soulmate. When I shared my experiences in Nevada with her, she reassured me of my safety. She held one hand and God held my other hand. That’s what soulmates do—their love provides safety and brings you closer to God.
As I write this, my mind is heavily weighted by the tragedy in Pittsburgh. But this time I’m not running away. I’m a Jew, and we endure. It’s in our DNA. People have been trying to get rid of us for centuries. We endure. We survive. We continue our story. Much like I told Dena, when she broke up with me early on in our relationship, “You can’t get rid of us that easily.”
I grieve for the Tree of Life Synagogue and mourn the loss of life. Yet I am comforted by our collective strength and standing tall with pride to be Jewish.
I’ve really come to love my culture and my people. I am able to look back on my time in and since Reno as a truly Jewish journey. I was persecuted, they tried to kill me, I survived, let’s eat.
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